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A primer on shrubs, the work horses of landscaping

Some of the showiest plants in the fall landscape are shrubs, and many of them are native. Shrubs are commonly called the work horses of the landscape, as they do important jobs as hedges, windbreaks, backdrops, focal points, foundation plants, or as the important middle layer between trees and grasses or perennials.

Even more important, the right shrubs provide food, housing, safety and a breeding place for birds, pollinators and other valued players in the ecosystem of your yard.

Let’s consider good shrubs and why they are far better than others (and remember – there is still plenty of time to plant them in fall).

Enter the invasives

Once upon a time, British-style gardeners planted English ivy to climb the walls of New England colleges, and others planted goutweed (Bishop’s weed) around the foundations of grand Buffalo mansions. Once Japanese knotweed seemed like a brilliant idea to prevent soil erosion on roadside and stream banks, and multiflora rose looked like the answer to support deer and keep snowmobilers out of country properties. (My dad planted them for that reason in Eden in the ’50s and the land is now overrun with them!)

A few years later, conservation groups, gardeners and landscapers made different mistakes that weren’t apparent at the time. Autumn olive and Russian olive were recommended for country properties. Burning Bush (Euonymous alatus) and Japanese barberries became staples for home landscapes for their wonderful fall colors. Then we collectively learned about non-native invasive plants – bad actors – including all those I have mentioned.

What’s bad about them?

Non-native, invasive plants (NIS), listed by the New York State Invasive Plant Council, are defined as: “Plants that lead to habitat degradation; loss of native fish, wildlife, insects or trees; loss of recreational opportunities and income; crop damage; human/animal diseases.”

They crowd out native plants that are essential cogs in the wheels of ecosystems. They grow faster and reproduce better than indigenous species, often because they have no natural enemies – they were imported but the creatures that eat them were not. Whether the plants sneaked in or were invited, nobody said “No” to them. Their bad habitats weren’t evident at first. We just didn’t see the problems coming.

Not everybody agrees about all invasive plant listings. Some in the landscape and nursery community don’t think that certain plants (such as Burning bush and Japanese barberries) should be banned, and we are seeing some cultivars exempted from invasive status. New York State was slower than several states in naming some plant species as invasive, and it wasn’t done lightly. See,, to learn about the data, research, decision making and efforts to control plants where they cause problems.

Rather than bog down in quarrels about which non-native plants we can buy, I recommend that consumers and plant businesses focus on the plants we can choose that definitely support healthy ecosystems. So many fine native plants (as well as pollinator pleasing non-natives) are available.

Now we know more

Certainly we have learned a lot since those days of willy-nilly plant introductions. The public and industry collectively know more and will avoid problem plants. More growers, nurseries and garden centers are willing to provide native plants for home landscapes, although the distribution system and availability of native species is challenging. CNLPs (landscape professionals) will find desirable native plants for you and many will direct you away from invasive plants. For instance, if you ask for a Norway maple (an out-of-control tree that’s crowding out important forest trees) almost all know to direct you toward a native maple tree or another fine species. It’s all progress.

Choose this, not that

As you plan your new or revised home landscape, start with the rules of good horticulture: First, know your site and choose plants that suit it and that will not outgrow the location when they mature. Get help from educated professionals about bed and soil prep. Then look for some of these wonderful shrubs, grouped here according to some common landscape functions. Most are native species (with highest ecological value) or cultivars of natives (also with pollinator value).

Fall color or year-round colorful leaves

Instead of the old Burning bush (Euonymous alatus) or barberry, use these:

Hydrangea quercifolia (Oakleaf hydrangea)

Itea virginica (Virginia sweetspire)

Fothergilla gardenia (Dwarf fothergilla/Witchalder)

Viburnum (excellent species both native and non-)

Physcocarpus (Ninebark)

Aronia (Chokeberry, both black and red)


Many invasive plants do well because they tolerate drought, but these will too (once established):

Myrica pensylvanica (Bayberry)

Hypericum kalmianum (St. Johns Wort)

Rhus typhina, R. aromatica ‘Gro-low’ (Sumacs); R. typhina (staghorn sumac) is valuable in country lands.

Wet tolerant

Wet soils encourage invasive plants such as purple loosestrife and Phragmites. Substitute these:

Clethra alnifolia (Sweet pepperbush, Summersweet)

Cephalanthus occidentalis (Buttonbush)

• Cornus racemosa, C. sericea (Grey or Redosier dogwoods)

Erosion control, bank coverage

• Shrubs: Sambucus Canadensis (Elderberry), Prunus virginiana (Chokecherry), Sumac species, shrubby dogwoods, native St. Johns wort, Nannyberry (Viburnum lentago)

• Vines: Parthenocissus quinquefolia (Virginia creeper), Vitis labrusca (Fox grape), Wisteria frutescens (American wisteria)

For the berries

Instead of invasive barberries, porcelain berries, or Asian bittersweet, choose the ornamental and ecologically friendly Virginia creeper, American bittersweet, Winterberry (Ilex verticillata) or Aronia. Don’t forget edible berries for people too: elderberries, serviceberries, blueberries, or a mulberry tree.

The right shrubs are just part of a healthy home landscape but they offer year-round benefits to wildlife, including pollinators. To see the product of some of their flowers, go to the Honey Harvest Festival at Masterson’s (East Aurora) this weekend. Then visit our region’s garden centers and nurseries to see what great shrubs look like in October.

Sally Cunningham is a garden writer, lecturer and consultant.

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